As school faces closure, one last graduating class

The last graduation ceremony at McNally Smith College of Music
The last graduation ceremony at McNally Smith College of Music took place Saturday.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Edwin Rasmussen stood outside before the graduation ceremony at McNally Smith College of Music, in a black gown, mortarboard on his head.

After taking time off from school, he returned this fall to finish his last set of credits.

"I feel like I just made it out just in time," he said. "It feels great to be graduating, this is one the proudest days of my life. And I'm just glad that they are still having it. It's great to see all these people one last time."

On Thursday, students and staff were told the downtown St. Paul school is closing due to a lack of funding. Faculty and staff didn't get their last paychecks on Friday because of those financial issues. The school has about 450 students.

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Graduation Saturday was a bittersweet ending for the semester, for the school, for the staff and the students. The school is set to close Wednesday, and while there are more finals to finish and grade, this was a final goodbye.

For student Tyler Hylland, he was proud of his classmates. But he also has just five credits left for his hip hop degree - a degree that is unique to the school.

"I might be able to get a different degree, but there's going to be a lot of other school work and a new whole field of study basically if I want to be able to graduate," he said.

He's worried for his classmates in the dorms. Their meal plan is in disarray after the cafeteria closed. A group of students and staff banded together to make sure those students have food.

Student speaker and graduate Camille Gibson spoke about the day's difficult dichotomy for students and staff.

"Ultimately that is what this institution is about," she said. "It's about a unified, diverse community. A community that uses its last remaining resources to lift people up and be there for each other no matter how difficult the circumstances might be."

Thirty-three students walked across the stage Saturday to get their diplomas. Graduates heard about the importance of their music in the world, of improvisation and of perseverance in the face of difficult circumstances.

After the ceremony, students and staff hugged, cried and celebrated in the atrium.

Junior Andrea Fonseca of Costa Rica, said she and her international classmates have 60 days for find a school to transfer to in the US, or else their visas will end.

With the visa issue, she and other international students are afraid to travel.

"We had flights booked, all of us, we had flights booked for the holidays," she said. "We all wanted to go see our families and their friends. And the international representative of the school said she's afraid that we go on those planes because we're probably not going to get let back in."

Still, she found joy in the day.

"I think today's a day to celebrate, I think today's a day so that students can say thank you to their teachers, and thank you to the staff," she said. "It's a day where we all come together as a community and, this is happening to all of us at the same time. And we're here for each other and celebrating all the people who did get to walk out of here with their degrees."

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education says it is working to help students figure out their options in transferring.